The suspense is laboriously built up in the Geffen Playhouse production of “Wait Until Dark,” a freshly adapted version of Frederick Knott’s 1966 play that gave rise a year later to the movie with Audrey Hepburn as a blind Greenwich Village pixie beset by nefarious shadows.
But when the tension finally gets going late in the second half, it rips, momentarily reviving not just a dusty property but a theatrical genre.
Alison Pill plays Susan, the young, victimized woman who lost her sight in a car accident and now must fend off some thuggish con men who have descended on her while her husband is away. A phenomenal stage actress who has captivated TV audiences with her work on HBO (“The Newsroom,” “In Treatment”), Pill makes even the clumsiest, exposition-laden moments worth watching.
There’s a grace to her portrayal even when she’s stumbling around her character’s basement apartment (crisply conjured by set designer Craig Siebels). She imparts to her lines, no matter how banal, a subliminal music. The very air around her seems to adjust itself to her luminous presence.
In short, she possesses that quality that is as hard to define as it is impossible to miss: theatrical style.
The production, directed by Matt Shakman, the founder and artistic director of Black Dahlia Theatre, needs every ounce of Pill’s magic. It’s not that the staging doesn’t establish the right note of cozy foreboding. Elizabeth Harper’s lighting injects mystery into these modest living quarters, and the constant pitter-patter of rain (the work of sound designer and composer Jonathan Snipes is first rate) snugly ensures trouble.
But not everyone in the cast is as capable as Pill of distracting us from the script’s awkwardness. The complicated plot, involving the whereabouts of a doll stuffed with something extremely valuable and no doubt illegal, is shot through with implausibilities. (Even Susan’s blindness, explained in a joke about her doctors being able to fix everything but her headlights, seems contrived.)
The men surrounding Susan are neither drawn nor played with the same level of conviction. Rod McLachlan layers in a little too much bumbling in his handling of Carlino, the phony police sergeant who is the brawn of this criminal operation. As Roat, the screwy mastermind, Adam Stein turns in a daring performance that still feels like a series of flamboyant gestures. Mather Zickel’s Mike, an unexpected visitor who becomes Susan’s self-appointed protector, gives us a strong, good-looking and suspiciously earnest outline but not much more.
Beyond Pill, the standout member of the cast is Brighid Fleming, who plays Gloria, the bratty young neighbor paid by Susan’s husband, Sam (Matt McTighe, overdoing the sternness), to look after his wife when he’s away. Gloria is almost too weird not to be true. Fleming’s characterization has the provocative sharpness that’s needed to revivify this kind of genre material.
Stage thrillers have gone the way of poodle skirts and egg creams, but there’s something charming about being scared together with fellow audience members at a live event. The danger is enhanced by the sight of an actor stabbing into the dark with a kitchen knife. What if a performer slips — or goes berserk? Film and TV provide the safeguard of a completed work. Theater, unfolding before us in real time, can slip its moorings.
A 1998 Broadway revival of “Wait Until Dark,” starring Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei, convinced me that this drama was beyond resuscitation. The retooled version of the script by Jeffrey Hatcher ameliorates some of the problems in Knott’s original but doesn’t render them invisible.
The period has been pushed back to 1944, which makes the preference for brass knuckles and switchblades over firearms a little more credible. The doll, which was stuffed with heroin in the original, now contains a more vintage choice for this kind of fiction, diamonds. (A stage mishap at the opening-night performance, however, made it seem as though the crooks were chasing shadows: The doll was empty.)
But the play is still rather talky, the intermission kills momentum, and the too-clever-by-half machinations of plot (venetian blind signals, all manner of telephone shenanigans, routine double-crossings) can’t help shriveling under the glare of scrutiny.
The dramatic premise, of a vulnerable woman discovering unexpected resources that allow her to turn the tables on her assailants, is still the main draw. The road to the goosepimply climax, even with Hatcher’s streamlining, is cumbersome, the dramaturgy as outdated as when the work was first written. But what a gripping finish. If endings were all, Knott’s play would be a classic.
The real reason to see “Wait Until Dark,” however, is Pill, one of those rare contemporary performers you could easily imagine starring in a classic black-and-white Hollywood film. As transfixing when terrorized as when fighting back, she brings fresh vitality to this overcooked fable.
‘Wait Until Dark’
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 17.
Tickets: $37 to $77
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or https://www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes